They’re out there on this blissful summer day, hundreds of Maine kids who don’t know whether they’re coming or going. And they need your help.

“I think anybody with a heart for children and a passion to make a difference can do this,” said Danylle Carson in an interview at the University of Maine School of Law on Friday. “This is how I give purpose to what happened to me in my childhood.”

She’s talking about Maine’s Court Appointed Special Advocate program, also known as CASA. It provides abused kids all over Maine with an adult voice, also known as a guardian ad litem, that speaks exclusively for them as they careen through a legal system that can be at best confusing and at worst terrifying.

Just ask Carson. She’s served as a CASA volunteer for just over a year. And back a lot further than that, she was once one of those kids.

More on that in a second. First, where you fit in.

“Right now we have 155 volunteers serving about 400 kids,” said Libby McCullum, who manages the Maine CASA program for the state’s judicial system. But, she added, “there are currently about 2,000 child protective cases pending.”

Meaning many, many kids still need someone to go to bat for them. Which is why Maine CASA will hold a four-day training program, one of three it conducts annually, from Aug. 12-15 in Augusta.

You don’t have to be an attorney or a social worker to sign up. Just an adult with a big heart, a sympathetic ear and a willingness to tell the judge what’s best for kids who might otherwise go unheard.

Kids like Danylle Carson.

She’s the second of six children born to a mother whose mental illness and substance abuse translated into a living hell for a child.

Before her mother ultimately ended up in prison on a drug conviction, she recalled, she and her siblings “would spend weekends and sometimes weeks by ourselves until a neighbor would notice and call my grandparents, who would come and sweep up us kids.”

Her grandparents, however, couldn’t handle raising all of them. So at the age of 7, Carson found herself rotating among foster homes – some good, some not – while the lawyers, Department of Human Services caseworkers and judges grappled over her ever-uncertain future.

But one woman, an attorney appointed by the court to serve as Carson’s guardian ad litem, was different from all the others.

“She was the first adult in my life, other than my grandparents, to tell me I was worthwhile,” Carson said. “When that woman walked into the room, she commanded attention. She had this incredible presence. But she was so gentle and sweet with me. She listened – and nobody had ever listened to me before.”

She can’t recall the woman’s name – and Carson’s efforts to locate her through state records have so far come up dry. But who the woman was is far less important at this point than what she did.

“They would say words that I didn’t understand and I would look at my guardian and say what does that mean? And she was the first person to explain,” Carson said. “It was almost like learning a secret language I had never heard. And what I really loved about it was the more she told me, the more I understood when the adults thought they were talking over my head.”

Which, at the tender age of 8, convinced Carson that when she grew up, she wanted to be an attorney.

It was, at times, an unlikely aspiration. By the time she was 13, Carson was living at the Lighthouse Teen Shelter in Portland, eating her meals at the Preble Street soup kitchen and then hurrying off to King Middle School “because my mother had dropped out and I wasn’t going to be like her.”

Then things got better.

A pastor and his family took Carson into their home in Buxton, where she enrolled at Bonny Eagle High School and then found a permanent home with Diane and Mark McNally in Limington. (When she was 21, to cement the fact that she’ll always be part of the family, the McNallys formally adopted her.)

Carson graduated from Bonny Eagle and enrolled at Andover College, where she earned an associate degree in paralegal studies. That led to a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration from the University of Phoenix.

Working the whole time (two of her jobs were at law firms), she finally applied to the University of Maine Law School in 2012 and, much to her amazement, got in.

That’s where she crossed paths with CASA’s McCullum, who visited school one day to talk about the program and dispel the myth that you have to be an attorney to serve as a guardian ad litem for kids in the child protective system.

“I was signed up before she was out the door,” said Carson.

She completed her training in the spring of 2013 and so far has handled three cases involving five children. And lo and behold, as thoughtful and thorough an advocate as she is for the kids, it’s put her own childhood in an entirely different perspective.

“When my kiddos are dealing with parents with substance abuse and they pour their hearts out to me about how that makes them feel, it’s like they’re saying the same things I used to say,” she said. “It’s been very healing for me. I’ve come to understand my mother’s mental illness in a way I never would have been able to do before I did this.”

And with that understanding has she learned to forgive a little?

“Forgive a lot,” replied Carson with a smile.

She’s married now with three children of her own. She commutes daily 90 minutes each way from her home in Leeds to Portland, where this summer she’s working as a student attorney at the law school’s Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic.

But the time Carson commits to Maine CASA – a minimum of one meeting per kid each month along with regular reports and recommendations to the presiding judge on what’s best for the child going forward – leaves her forever grateful that she once watched in awe as a woman did the same for her.

“CASA will be a part of my life for as long as I’m breathing,” she said. “Because this is how I give purpose to what happened to me in my childhood. I can take something that seemed negative at the time and turn it into something extraordinarily positive for other children in Maine.”

Want to join her?

Visit www.casaofmaine.org or call 287-5403.

Hundreds of Maine kids are standing by.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 207-791-6323 or at:

[email protected]

@BillNemitz